“So,” she asks, “what do you think?”
“I think you should ask your boyfriend,” I say.
“He says he’s not worried. We can still keep in touch.”
“He has a point.”
“But I told him that’s not the same.”
“You have a point, too,” I concede.
Then, she repeats: “So what do you think?”
A year’s worth of accumulated college stuff is packed into her battered Ford outside. It’s been a long year of studying and cramming and writing, enough to make even the most ardent student eager to turn tail and run home for the summer. But she’s stuck around, unwilling to leave because of what she will leave behind.
“It’s not that far, you know,” I offer.
“It’s Utah,” she says. “That’s a long way from Virginia.”
“Could be worse. You could live in California. That would add a few hundred miles.”
I smile, but she doesn’t smile back.
“Why did I have to fall for a guy here?” she asks.
I shrug. “The heart knows what it wants,” I answer. “Rational thought is sometimes left out of the equation.”
“But he’s here, and I’m going to be there.”
“But you’ll be back here in three months,” I say. “That’s not a big deal. And there are plenty of ways to keep in touch until then.”
“But I can’t see him,” she says. “Talking over the phone and emailing isn’t the same as seeing him.”
“Because you’re in love?”
The nod I give her isn’t a sarcastic one, but an acknowledgment of the truth. They are in love. Truly, madly, deeply in love. Love in its truest sense is not solely the domain of people who have been around for longer than twenty-two years. I see them on campus and I know. Love has a look.
“I don’t want to go,” she says. “I want to stay here. With him.”
“But you have to go, right?” I ask.
I get silence as an affirmative.
“And you want to know if your love for each other can withstand the distance between you?”
She sits across from me, chewing on a fingernail. In the background the radio is playing Alan Jackson’s “Small Town Southern Man.” Fitting, I think, because that’s exactly what this city girl from Utah has found. And though I don’t know him well, I know enough to think she’d better hang on to him. Because it’s always been my opinion that those small town Southern men are worth keeping around. My own bias of course, since I’m one of them.
She breaks her silence and says, “So what do you think?”
“I think yes,” I say. “I think if you love him as much as he says he loves you, then distance is irrelevant. I think that wherever either of you are, the other one will always be. Faith is a powerful thing. Hope, too. But love? Nothing stops love. And if it’s as strong as you say it is, then that love will always be something you can stand under whenever the rain starts pouring.”
“We’ll be all right?” she asks.
“As long as the two of you don’t give up on each other.”
She smiles at that. She has hope now. Hope that life and circumstance do not have the last say when it comes to matters of the heart.
That in the end, love always holds on.
This tube of toothpaste.
It’s good toothpaste, the kind that promises whiter teeth and cleaner gums and fresh, minty breath. It’s been in the fancy little holder beside our sink for the last two weeks now. It’s been mashed, pinched, folded, and squeezed. I’ve even punched it once.
There is an unwritten rule between my wife and I that whoever brushes their teeth first takes the time to lather up the other’s toothbrush, too. It’s one of those tiny but appreciated acts of service upon which marriages tend to thrive. While doing so one night last week, I noticed the tube was nearing the end of its usefulness. I had to roll the bottom up to cover my toothbrush, and then roll it up more to cover hers.
“Toothpaste’s getting low,” I told her.
“Okay,” she said.
When my wife went first the next morning, she had to roll and squeeze a little more. “Toothpaste’s almost out,” she said to me afterwards.
“Okay,” I said.
And that’s how it started. Every morning and every evening we went through the same routine, and our tube of toothpaste kept shrinking. “Toothpaste’s getting low,” we would say to each other. “Okay,” we both would answer.
It’s become the sort of entertainment that two people who have known one another for a third of their lives can appreciate. Small things, not big ones, give us the most laughs. And our fight to not be the one who breaks down and finally throws the toothpaste away has given us plenty to laugh about.
This morning, I had to both grimace and hold my breath to get any toothpaste out. Just enough, I noticed, for one person.
I looked at my blue and white toothbrush, then at her purple one. I put it on mine. I know, I know, bad husband. But she had done the same to me last night.
My wife swears she will not be the one to give in. And I have promised the same thing, though I’m secretly in talks with the kids to throw the thing away for us. I’m tired of having to go through an entire workout just to brush my teeth.
Is this whole thing a little comical? Yes. Is it ridiculous? No.
Because there is something else going on here. Something deeper.
Being a husband or a wife is work, no doubt about it. Hard work. And when that husband becomes a father and that wife a mother? Harder work.
I labor all day at one job and then come home to another, one that involves a wide range of skills. At home, my title is among other things Lego Builder, Homework Helper, Vehicle Mechanic, House Fixer, and Grounds Supervisor.
My wife has it just as bad. She’s a teacher during the day, and also at night. Add to that Cook, Housekeeper, Confidant, Rocking Chair Attendant, Bed Tucker, and Boo-Boo Healer.
We each have a lot of responsibilities around the house. Maybe too many. Adding Empty Toothpaste Tube Chucker would probably put us over the top. We would collapse under the pressure.
Tonight, in the quiet hours just after tucking the kids in and just before tucking ourselves, my wife and I together picked up the tube of toothpaste and dropped it into the trash. Then, after retrieving a new one from the cabinet, I put toothpaste on her brush and she repeated for me.
We both need a little recognition for the things we do. A little thanks for those little jobs that keep our little lives running smoothly. That she or I will be there is a given, but that’s not reason to take each other for granted. Yet that’s what we do sometimes.
That’s what we all do sometimes.
“You know that brush is wet, right?” my wife asks.
I don’t. Not till then. I smear the blue against my jeans, thinking that if I had bought them at the store like that, it would have set me back about a hundred dollars.
“Is he sure he wants to do this?” I ask.
“He said he did,” she answers.
“Do you believe him?”
She pauses then says, “I don’t want to.”
“Me neither,” I say, “but it’s his room, right?”
Another pause. Then: “Right.”
We had painted the Winnie the Pooh mural when our daughter was born, and she had slept beneath it for two years until she had to move out to make room for our son. But at five, he thinks Winnie the Pooh is for kids. And he is no longer a kid. My task today is to erase it. To paint over it and cover it up with pictures of Derek Jeter and Lou Gehrig.
I do not want to do this.
So this morning I painted the trim, the doors, and the other three walls, trying to postpone the inevitable. But with everything else done, the inevitable is here.
It’s just a stupid wall, I tell myself. But it’s not, and I know that. This is a symbol. A memory of the fear and joy of becoming a parent for the first time.
You battle the passage of time with your children. You fight to keep them small and innocent and on your lap. And even if you know they will soon be big and experienced and on their own, you fight anyway.
Painting over this feels like surrender. And I’m not quite ready to wave the white flag.
My eyes gaze around his room, and I catch myself wondering how much longer my son will be in it. He’ll start kindergarten next year. No doubt it’ll seem as if he’ll start high school the year after that, graduate from college the year after that, and the year after that I’ll be holding my grandchildren.
Somewhere in between, my son will realize something. He’ll find the truth about his old man. He’ll discover that I’m really not the superhero cowboy he thinks I am. That I might be tough on the outside, but I’m pretty soft on the inside. That I can’t fix everything, don’t know anything, and fret over a lot more than I let on.
He’ll have his own life with his own family. I’ll have to let him go so he can find his own way.
Such is the constant churning of life, ever forward and never backward. And though we plant our shoulders to the gears of our days and beg them to stop, they roll on anyway.
But just as I am ready to surrender after all, I spot something on my son’s dresser that makes me smile. Sitting there beside his Lightning McQueen lamp is my father’s wallet, left by him just a few hours ago. My normally steady hand seems to disappear whenever I’m painting trim, so I had called him for a little help.
And he answered. Just like he always has.
My thirty-seventh birthday is a little more than a month away. A lot has changed in my life since I was my son’s age. A lot hasn’t, too.
Still, after all these years, my father is there for me. There to help me fix the truck or cut some wood or tend the garden. There for advice or wisdom or to shoot the breeze.
The fact that I have my own life and my own family, the fact that I’ve found my own way, hasn’t changed everything. Time doesn’t always break our bonds. Sometimes it grows them deeper.
I move from my son’s bed to the tray of paint next to the wall, pick up the roller, and begin. Gone is the leafy tree, pouty Eeyore, Piglet, and Tigger. Gone is Christopher Robin and the unknown book he’s entertained his friends with for over seven years. And then, finally, Pooh is gone, too.
And that’s okay. Because as I paint I have in my mind a far-away picture of another man’s house and another child’s dresser. And I think of that man sitting upon the edge of that child’s bed, staring at my wallet.
I’ve always loved Memorial Day, and for a lot of reasons.
It’s a day off for me. Firing up the grill and eating too much. Spending time with family and friends. Relaxing. Officially saying goodbye to the fickleness of spring and hello to summer’s reliable warmth.
But Memorial Day is also more. Much more. I’ve always realized that. But this past Saturday, I knew it.
I’m posting at Katdish’s blog today. I invite you there so you can meet my friend Kirk, who has changed quite a bit over the past four years. Time can do that. So can war.
Have a blessed day, everyone. And don’t forget to pause in this peaceful day to remember those
who secured that peace for us.